My “what’s being published these days” project has yielded one rather dramatic piece of information, one which requires further investigation, because my sample set is so small – but so far, 86% of the historical fiction I’ve looked at features a first-person narrator.
Really?? Eight-six percent? That’s a huge majority. I knew that the first-person narrator was trendy. I didn’t realize it had virtually taken over.
I have been wracking my brain and I cannot remember one example of an historical novel from the dozens I read as a young teen that was written in the first person. (I’m sure there must have been some – go ahead and remind me.) Even if I’ve forgotten a few, I am fairly certain that the vast majority of the historical fiction published in the fifties and sixties were told in the third person; some omniscient, more limited, but very, very few in the voice of the protagonist or another character in the narrative. (One reason I feel this is true is because of the big deal they made about the first person narrator when we read Moby Dick in school.)
I really, really don’t want to re-write the WIP in the first person! (Cue whiny toddler voice here.) However, this does have me reviewing the pros-and-cons of the point of view options.
First person narrator is when the story is told by an individual from their own point of view. The narrator can be the main character – this is the most common approach. The primary advantage of this is that it encourages the reader to identify with the main character, to be more emotionally involved from the beginning. In first person the narrator tells the story as she lived it, and typically tells how she felt and what she thought as events unfolded.
The narrator doesn’t need to be the main character; another common approach is a first person narrative from the point of view of a secondary or even a minor character. These are more difficult because the primary limitation of the first person narrator, the inability to report anything outside the narrator’s “field of vision,” can be a major hurdle if the narrator only sees the main character in one sphere of his life, at school, perhaps. If the narrator is the main character’s best friend, it may be believable for the MC to tell everything they did and thought and felt since their last meeting; but it’s still difficult to do well.
The third approach to the first person narrator is even more uncommon but when done well is highly memorable: this is the storyteller narrator who is not a character in the story but still addresses the reader directly: Lemony Snicket, or the narrator in Tale of Despereaux. (For an interesting exercise, compare the first-person narratives in Because of Winn Dixie and Tale of Desperaux. Same author, both first person narrators, very different voices.)
A significant pitfall of the first-person narrator for historical fiction is that world-building is difficult. It is awkward for the characters to explain the facts of their daily lives, either in speech or in thought. It’s likely to sound forced or false. But without the details, the reader will tend to picture the character’s activities in images from the reader’s experience, a kind of anachronism-by-omission. First person narratives also give rise to scenes in which characters catch glimpses of themselves in mirrors or describe unflattering photographs as writers try to weave some description into that first-person structure.
Third person narratives are divided into the third-person-omniscient, third-person- objective, and third-person-limited-omniscient. The third-person objective is the most straightforward: the narrator tells the story as if describing a movie to a blind person: no commentary, no information beyond what can be seen or heard in the action, but the narrator, not limited to one character's perspective, can see things that happen when the main character isn't there (or even when no characters are there to see the action).
The third-person omniscient narrator is unlimited by space and time, able to describe not only what is happening but why, sharing the thoughts and feelings of any character. This sounds like it would be the easiest approach for the writer but it is difficult to do well: the tendency is to “head-hop” from one character to another, which can leave the reader feeling confused or whip-lashed. Handled skillfully, the third-person-omniscient provides for the greatest breadth and depth of narrative: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a recent superlative example.
Third-person limited-omniscient seems to be a compromise between the first-person and the third-person: the narrative is in the third person, so the narrator is able to talk about the main character and their world without sounding forced, but the “watcher” can also report the point of view character’s thoughts and feelings, so the reader can identify emotionally with the character. The vast majority of those books I devoured as a young reader were third-person limited-omniscient narratives.
Another variation is the alternating point-of-view: either first-person or third-person limited-omniscient, where the point of view moves from one character to another, sometimes in alternating chapters. Both options allow the writer to explore the thoughts and feelings of more than one character while retaining the ability to describe details of a scene from the outside. Is this flexibility a useful approach or a cop-out for the lazy (or timid) writer? I fear this may be the question (or dagger) before me.